Looking beyond mental illness to see the person in the intense, affecting The Valley

Photo by Keagan Heathers. Graphic design by Ali Carroll.

 

Don’t Look Down Theatre Company, in support of CAMH, presents an intense, affecting production of Joan McLeod’s The Valley, directed by co-Artistic Director Ryan James and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace. Inspired by the shocking 2007 tasering death of Robert Dziekanski during his arrest at the Vancouver airport, The Valley looks at the experience of mental health issues; and the assumptions about and reactions to someone living with mental illness, from the perspective of loved ones and law enforcement.

Eighteen-year-old Connor (Daniel Entz) is an intelligent, engaged, aspiring sci-fi writer—that is, until he goes off to Calgary to university. When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational suspicion of his dorm roommate. And now, a young man who was previously excited to go off to university is insisting that he can’t go back. A divorced single mom, Sharon is navigating her own troubles—and her desperate attempts to help and cheer her son only serve to agitate him more, resulting in an increased level of stress and worry for her.

Meanwhile, Vancouver cop Dan (Cedric Martin) is becoming more and more cynical about and dissatisfied with his job. Faced with an ongoing array of people with serious substance and behaviour issues, he finds it hard to feel that his work makes a difference. Feeling the pressures of being a new father, as well as looking after his emotionally fragile wife Janie (Alexa Higgins), a recovering addict, he sucks it all up and carries on, finding refuge in his bicycle. Janie is struggling with post-partum depression and sleep deprivation; and is deeply troubled that she can’t seem to connect with their infant son Zeke. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Dan to understand what she’s going through—and she’s feeling increasingly at her wit’s end.

The worlds of these two intimate family units collide when Connor experiences a psychotic break on public transit and Dan arrives on the scene. Scared and confused, and brandishing what appears to be a weapon—in actual fact, a rolled up bunch of fliers, which he drops at Dan’s command—Connor becomes even more agitated, lashing out while Dan attempts to cuff him, hands behind his back. Dan’s use of force to restrain him escalates, resulting in Connor sustaining a broken jaw. Outraged, Sharon files a complaint and tries to get Dan to see who Connor really is—a talented, intelligent young man and not just a mental illness. When that fails, she suggests a resolution-oriented approach: a healing circle that includes Dan, Janie, Connor and herself. Janie is all for it, but Dan is having none of it.

Lovely, focused work from this cast on the sensitive, timely subject of mental illness. Entz gives us a deep dive into Connor’s tormented psyche, surfacing with a physically and emotionally present performance. We can see Connor’s tightly wound, tortured soul torn between withdrawing in fear from the world, and reaching out for help and connection. Fairbairn gives a heart-wrenching performance as Sharon; dealing with her own emotional upheaval, Sharon’s profound desire to do the best she can for her son comes out in bursts of unsolicited advice and talkative cheerleading, pushing her son further into his own world and making her feel even more helpless.

Martin’s multidimensional performance goes a long way toward making us feel empathy for Dan. Dan is trying his best to be a good cop and a supportive husband, but lack of awareness and misconceptions about mental health and mental illness get in his way—as do his own personal demons, particularly an increasingly dark view of his career in law enforcement. Higgins gives a touching, layered performances as Janie, bringing a sweetness and optimism, as well as a strength that underlies Janie’s vulnerability. Faking it till she makes it only gets Janie so far, and she soon comes face to face with her own troubled past.

Good people with the best of intentions can fall short in their drive to be effective and helpful allies for those living with mental illness. How do we increase awareness—for both the public and law enforcement—and bring the focus onto the people behind the illness, who are struggling and need support? The Valley puts a face on mental illness, reminding us that we’re all grappling with internal conflict. And that compassion, understanding and empathy go a long way to providing healthy, helpful support and making meaningful connections.

With shouts to stage manager/lighting designer Chin Palipane for the cool, atmospheric lighting effects.

The Valley continues in the TPM Backspace until September 23; 7:30 p.m. curtain for evening performances and 2:00 p.m. weekend matinees (Please note: Sun, Sept 16 matinee has been moved to 7:30 p.m.). Book advance tickets online or by calling 416-504-7529.

You can also keep up with Don’t Look Down Theatre Company on Twitter. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

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Toronto Fringe: Art, longing & acceptance in the poetic, heart-wrenching, gender-bending The Bird Killer

Clockwise, from bottom left: Emerjade Simms, Tymika Tafari, Subhash Santosh, Mo Zeighami, Evan Mackenzie & Mike Ricci. Photo by Patrick J. Horan.

 

LET ME IN presents Justine Christensen’s poetic, heart-wrenching modern-day, gender-bending adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with its Toronto Fringe production of The Bird Killer, directed by Patrick J. Horan and running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A group of artist friends grapple with the day-to-day challenges of artistic expression, and personal and professional fulfillment—all while maintaining their relationships and support network. Masha (Emerjade Simms) is a keen observer of her friends’ goings-on, and acts as a host/narrator when she’s not directly involved in a moment. Wearing black to mourn the state of her life, her sardonic sense of humour masks a broken heart: her unrequited love of the driven, tormented playwright Kostya (Mo Zeighami). Kostya is with the nervous emerging actor Nina (Even Mackenzie), who stars in her new contemporary theatre piece. Singer/songwriter Medvedenko (Mike Ricci, who also supplies original music for the production) is Kostya’s loyal, hard-working stage manager; and taken with Masha.

Kostya’s wise-cracking stand-up comic brother Arkadina (Subhash Santosh) brings his girlfriend, renowned playwright Trigorin (Tymika Tafari), to an invitation-only presentation of Kostya’s new work; setting off debates of artistry vs. celebrity, and changing the group dynamic. He’s unwittingly set in motion a significant ripple within the group—and things will never be the same.

Beautiful, moving work from the ensemble with a piece that cuts close to home for all artists. Each character longs for love and professional artistic fulfillment, but finds it difficult to achieve satisfaction. Does acknowledgement and accolades make one artist’s work more important than another’s? How does an artist navigate authenticity vs. marketability? And, most importantly, how does an artist accept him/herself?

The Bird Killer continues in the Tarragon Mainspace, with two more performances: tonight (July 13) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at 3:30 pm.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Deeply moving, interwoven look at the faces of loss & coping in Piece by Piece

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Mary Francis Moore & Virgilia Griffith in Piece by Piece

The loss of a loved one – to death, cognitive illness or break-up – is hard on everyone, especially on those who are left behind.

The McGuffin Company explores loss and coping in Alison Lawrence’s Piece by Piece, directed by David Ferry and running at the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

The play is anchored by Steffi (Virgilia Griffith), a teen who has recently lost her mother to illness and her grief-stricken father Bert (Brian Young) to alcohol. Finding herself unable to return to school, Steffi returns daily to the ICU where her mother died – and this is where the interwoven stories of the play converge: Frank (Terrence Bryant), a professor who’s lost his mind to Alzheimer’s, and his wife Barb (Linda Goranson), who’s at her wit’s end looking after her changed husband; and geriatric specialist John (John Cleland), on Frank’s health care team, who’s dealing with a loss of his own – his wife Jessie’s (Mary Francis Moore) multiple miscarriages and behavioural changes, and the subsequent distance between them.

The ensemble does a remarkable job navigating the complex character relationships and responses as the stages of grief play out in various scenarios – with simmering rage, biting anger, dark humour and inconsolable tears – and revelations for each other and for themselves emerge.

Griffith is outstanding as Steffi, a smart-ass kid who’s wise beyond her years, her tough guy exterior masking the heartbroken child beneath – and her frank, often irreverent and humourous, monologues carry the audience through the process from her point of view and add context to the scenes that follow. Young does a nice job as her pathetically self-involved father Bert, who you can’t help but feel bad for as he stumbles around within his grief, even as he ignores his daughter while finding solace at the bottom of a tall boy. Bryant brings a lovely fragile quality to Frank, a once highly articulate and intelligent man whose mind has lost its way; and Goranson captures the complex layers of an exhausted wife struggling with her own frustration and pain as she tries to cope with his deteriorating condition – losing a beloved husband of 47 years before her eyes while he’s still alive. No doormat, Barb has chutzpah, but must come to the realization that she can’t function alone in this. Moore is edgy, raw and heartbreaking as Jessie, who distracts herself with the tragedies of others to avoid living in her own; and Cleland’s John is nicely understated as her supportive and struggling husband, spending as much time and energy trying to get Jessie to confront her mental health issues as he does on quashing his own anger and sense of futility.

Beyond the personal experience of coping with the loss of a loved one, Piece by Piece is about how those who are left behind lose themselves in the process – bit by bit, they change and nothing will ever be the same. It’s about finding support and community in order to move on. Each feels alone in his/her pain, but they can’t – and must not – get through it alone.

Piece by Piece is a deeply moving, interwoven look at the many faces of loss and coping.

Piece by Piece runs until Sun, Jan 18 – you can book tix ahead online.